Inside the corridors of power

Following on from my previous post, my delightful assistant and I escaped the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tapestry viewing area and legged it upstairs to the relative calm of the Scottish Parliament’s Debating Chamber.

As we made our way through the building we were struck by the very angular architecture, which made me think of those mindboggling drawings by Dutch artist, M C Escher:



Had we been visiting on a different day of the week, the Debating Chamber might have been full of MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament), but we were there on a Monday, which is one of the days when the Parliament doesn’t sit. On the down side, it meant we couldn’t attend a debate, but on the up side it meant we could wander around freely.

I’ve often seen pictures of the Chamber on TV but I wasn’t quite prepared for the scale of it. It was vast and airy, and delightfully free of milling bodies, in contrast to the downstairs lobby:


Small assistant in a large Chamber.

One of the remarkable things about the Chamber is the absence of supporting columns for the enormous ceiling. Instead, there are reinforced steel and laminated oak beams spanning the area. The beams are held in place by 112 steel joints, each one made to fit the unique angles at its point in the structure.



There are 131 seats and desks, laid out in a semi-circular arrangement to avoid the sort of confrontational style of debate that can be seen, for example, in the Chamber of the House of Commons in London.

The desks are made of oak and sycamore and over 60 of the MSPs’ seats are wheelchair accessible. My dad thought the desks looked as if each one had a pair of trousers laid over the back of it (the Presiding Officer and her clerks sit at the big desk at the front):


Can you spot the ‘trousers’ adorning the desks?

While we were strolling around a tour came in and I overheard some of what the tour guide was saying (you can book to go on a tour of the building for free but there were no spaces available while we were there).

She pointed out the clocks that are placed at strategic points throughout the Chamber, explaining that some of them show the time and others show how long the current speaker has been talking for.

Speaking time for individual MSPs is limited, and each desk is fitted up with a microphone. The microphone is turned on when it’s a speaker’s time to talk, and abruptly turned off when their time has run out. I imagine that speaking for the exact amount of allotted time is quite a skill, and once honed could prove useful for radio interviews:


Above the MSPs, a semi-circular gallery seats 225 members of the public, 18 invited guests and 34 members of the media. The tour guide mentioned that this constitutes a larger public gallery than you will find in any other parliamentary building in Europe.

We rested our weary bones by trying out the seats and I thought they were remarkably comfortable. I could well imagine attending a debate here and nodding off in the sunshine flooding through the huge windows:


Talking of windows, there’s a lot of natural light in the Chamber. There were no artificial lights on when we visited and it was a dull day, but the room was very bright.

Fine views were to be had out to the old Palace of Holyrood across the road, and up to the local hill, Arthur’s Seat, and the Queen’s Park:


View out to Arthur’s Seat, with turf roofed area of the Parliament Building in the foreground. The white building you can see at the back on the right of this picture is part of the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition, well worth a visit if you’re loafing around Edinburgh mulling over the amazing processes involved in the creation of this planet and wondering where you might learn more.

The vision of the building’s architect, Enric Miralles (who sadly died before it was inaugurated), included landscaping around the building to make it look as if it was part of the natural environment. This included laying turf on the roofs and planting Scottish wild flowers around the grounds.

He also chose to plant the same sorts of trees as are found in the grounds of Holyrood Palace across the road, in addition to planting rowan trees, because they’re traditionally regarded as a symbol of good fortune.


View from the Debating Chamber across to the Palace of Holyrood, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.

When we’d had our fill of sitting around in the Chamber, we got up to leave and both reported feeling somewhat dizzy.  Whether this was due to sitting up in the gallery looking down or, as I think more likely, having our brains confused by all the hard lines and angles in the building, I don’t know but we were both relieved to get back outside into the fresh air.

Outside, there were giant twiglets stuck to some of the walls. Perhaps noticing these on our way in explains the curious yearning I had for salty snacks during the visit:


Giant twiglets at the Scottish Parliament.

Embedded into part of the outside wall we found a number of large panels filled with quotations. Some of these were from poets or writers, and others were from the Bible or anonymous sayings. They seemed to me to be rather a strange collection, including Scots and Gaelic as well as English:


If you fancy visiting the Parliament yourself, it’s open from Monday to Saturday, and if you want to go on a tour I would recommend booking in advance.

There’s a cafe (which we didn’t patronise, on this occasion) and a shop, and perhaps most surprising of all, a free creche. You can deposit your offspring there for up to four hours while you visit the Parliament. It’s apparenty the only facility of its kind in Europe, and sounds like a good idea to me.


32 thoughts on “Inside the corridors of power

    • The building does seem large and sprawling but there are only certain parts open to the public so it’s not too difficult to find your way about, although all the wood and glass is a bit mesmerising. I agree with GMH too, although I was surprised to find him quoted on the parliament building, as he was English. I would have expected them to stick to Scottish writers, but it was quite an eclectic mix.

  1. What an incredible building – I am not sure if I like the aesthetics of it, but it is certainly spacious inside and I would definitely like that. I agree with your Dad about the trousers! What a contrast to the House of Commons. I also agree about the Twiglets – mm, I just fancy some now, too! The seats are an unusual shape – I wonder if this is symbolic of something, or just abstract art! I have often thought about going to the Dynamic Earth exhibition – have you been, and is it good?

    • I wasn’t sure about it at first either, but it’s slowly growing on me. The wood that’s been used is of very good quality, and those gallery seats were apparently designed by Miralles the architect. I don’t know if they’re supposed to symbolise something or if they’re just of a curvy abstract design. It’s vastly different from the House of Commons, isn’t it? I’ve never been in the House of Commons myself but it looks as if it could be quite claustrophobic when full of people, being all closed in with those solid straight benches on either side.

      I think you’d enjoy the Dynamic Earth exhibition. It’s a few years since I’ve been but I thought it was very good. As usual with such places there’s too much to take in on one visit and it is tiring, but there’s a lot to interest the budding geologist. The part that I liked best was a virtual reality area where you feel as if you’re flying over a glacier, that was really good. There’s something similar at the Famous Grouse exhibition near Crieff too (have you been?) where you see a grouse’s eye view of the world. I’d like to revisit the Dynamic Earth some time because there are bound to be new things there since I last went and I don’t remember it all.

      • I haven’t been to the House of Commons, either – well, I have, but I was about 7 and can’t remember much! I would like to go again.
        I shall have to visit Dynamic Earth sometime. The only exhibition of this type that I have been to is the Natural History Museum in London, which was amazing. I’m sure I would love this, too! I have heard of the Famous Grouse exhibition but imagined it might be a bit touristy – but next time we’re passing through we might stop off.

        • Your mention of the Natural History Museum reminds me that I haven’t visited and would like to. It was on my list during a trip to London but there were too many other places to see and I didn’t manage it. I’d like to visit the Houses of Parliament too.

          My expectations weren’t that high before I went to the Famous Grouse but they were definitely exceeded (this may have had something to do with the whiskies we got to taste at the end…). I was lucky that there were only a handful of visitors and the guide was very good, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

  2. This sounds really interesting. I love the view, the way it seems connected to the surrounding land, the quotes on the walls, and the pants hanging over the chairs 🙂 It would be really interesting to hear if other people had the same dizziness effect.

    • It’s nice the way they’ve put turf on the roofs and you can see some of it from the Debating Chamber. I would be very interested to hear if other people felt dizzy inside. Otherwise it was a bit of a coincidence that both my dad and I felt it. We were full of scone, too, so not suffering from lack of sustenance.

  3. I can’t believe you didn’t make it to the cafe, Lorna, in spite of the scone. It’s a good looking place and I wouldn’t mind a tootle round. I believe Colin Baird (who is also a blogger) works there. He’s a keen cyclist and takes fabulous photos, which you might have seen on Facebook. 🙂

    • I know, it’s surprising about the cafe, but it was heaving and we were off elsewhere for lunch. I did visit the cafe once before, years ago, but I don’t remember much about it. I haven’t seen Colin Baird’s photos but I’d be interested to take a peek, particularly if he works there because he’ll have access to bits the public don’t get to see.

  4. I like the idea of the microphone being switched off when a speaker’s time is up. Perhaps we could extend that idea into some other situations – for example these cold callers that were grieving you recently.

  5. An interesting building, More modern than I would have thought. NIce and bright and airy. I hope it is condusive to good decision making. I am ashamed to admit I have not yet visited the Canadian Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. As a writer, I was pleased to see a variety of quotes on the building. The one you pictured is most fitting.

    • It is very modern, a bit of a shock for the good citizens of Edinburgh when it went up. Surrounded as it is by some old and rather beautiful buildings, it took a bit of getting used to but I think it’s settling into the landscape more now that the foliage round about is growing up. I imagine the Canadian Houses of Parliament would be a great place to visit, they’re in a very grand building, aren’t they?

  6. Firstly, that’s a Yes to salty snacks and pretzel like adornment! Such a unique & clever design for that building. Those supports do exactly that, whilst allowing for the great expanse of sunshine through that great hall (lol to the ‘wooden pants’ draped over the desks. Well spotted!) As for the Escher-esque hallways, windows & stairs also duly noted.

    It’s a very fine example of great modern architecture overall!

    • Thanks Alice, it sounds as if you quite like it! There was a lot of opposition to the modern style of it initially but I think it’s more accepted now. Edinburgh is a city of old buildings, particularly the old town area where the new Parliament building has been built, so it stands out a bit. I think it has some interesting features though, including the ‘wooden pants’. 🙂

  7. What an incredible design…it is Escher like (one of the first pieces of artwork I every purchased was an M.C. Escher piece on glass)…this architecture is just spectacular and easy on the eyes.

    • It’s refreshing to hear your opinion, Linda. So many people were opposed to the design, but I suppose what suits one person doesn’t necessary suit another. I think if it had been built in Glasgow, a city that seems more comfortable with modern architecture, it might have gone down better but the good folk of Edinburgh tend to be more traditional in their tastes.

  8. Thanks for the tour. I agree with the Escher echo, rather unnerving I would have thought. Do they notice if they get the same babies/children day after day in the crêche? It must be rather a temptation. Love the quote too.

    • That thought crossed my mind and I really don’t know the answer to it. If I worked near there in Edinburgh and had to find childcare it would be extremely tempting to frequent the free creche. Perhaps they note your name and you’re only allowed to go every so often, I don’t know.

  9. I’m not sure how I feel about the look of that building but it’s undeniably impressive. The amount of engineering that goes into such a structure must be mind boggling. I really get a kick out of the contrast between the contemporary architecture and the antique architecture of the palace just across the way — one of the many charms of Europe. PS: those desks really do look like they have trousers draped over them!

    • That’s how I feel about it, Lucinda, I’m still not entirely convinced I actually like the building but it is, as you say, undeniably impressive and I’m full of admiration for the engineering skills involved. I wouldn’t have spotted the trousers had my delightful assistant not pointed them out. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at those desks in the same way again.

  10. I’ve been to the Scottish Parliament twice, and both times have been surprised at how much I liked it, for the reasons that you give. There’s so much thought in the building, both how it looks, the materials used, and things like the creche. I think the fact the creche is there at all is the very best thing about it! And I also love the quote wall.

    • Thanks Christine, it is a very interesting structure and if you keep an open mind there’s plenty to admire about it. The creche is an amazing facility, I expect it’s very well used.

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